The International Festival of New Latin American Cinema held annually in Havana really has to be seen to be believed.
Unlike the elitist European festivals that we have become accustomed to, here there is no red carpet, no celebrity, no separation of cinema workers (actors, directors, etc.) and other workers (the public). You can see seven films for ten Cuban pesos (50 euro cent) and there are lots of free peripheral events including workshops, press conferences and concerts which are open to all and sundry, not to mention a fantastic selection of over 400 films and documentaries.
December saw the 37th festival, with whole parts of the city converted into one giant cinema. The cinemas themselves are just amazing. None of your multiplexes here, but huge palaces for the public to live out their cinematic dreams, fantasies and realities. Free outdoor screenings are a common feature, with films projected onto the gable walls of some of the bigger buildings.
Long gone are the days of stories of people queueing for food in Cuba; instead we find young and old in queues for high quality, easily accessible cinematic art. As they don’t all have their noses stuck into smartphones, the queues themselves become lively centres of exchange of opinions on and recommendations for the films on show, as ad hoc juries are formed by the public passing verdict on the latest releases. The conversations often continue inside the cinema before the film begins. Directors and actors are usually present for Q&A sessions after screenings, and if not, are often available in the lobby for an informal chat. They also hold daily press conferences at the Hotel Nacional, which again are open to the general public eager to ask questions about the films they have just seen.
Ireland was well represented at the festival with the screening of Viva. Directed by Paddy Breathnach and partly funded by RTE and Bord Scannán na hÉireann, the film examines the relationship between a young transvestite cabaret singer and his estranged macho father, recently released from prison. Filmed entirely on location in Havana with some of Cuba’s best known actors, such as Luis Alberto Garcia and Jorge Perugorría, the film was a huge hit with the Cuban public, who gave the actors and crew a standing ovation at it’s premiere. The film will be Ireland’s submission for the Foreign Language category in this year’s Academy Awards.
The 37th festival invited the public to “see, conserve, develop and bet for the cinema.” In a period of change and challenge in Cuban history, the people of Cuba will decide their own destiny and I have no doubt that they will be steadfast in their production, promotion and protection of popular culture.